Petition Closed

Civil Society Organisations: A call for government action on deaths of boys in traditional circumcisions

This petition had 153 supporters


Problem Statement:

Yezingane Network joins its voice with calls for action across the nation to end the deaths of boys in initiation schools, and specifically calls for:

legislation which will assure the safety, dignity and protection of children while in initiation schools and restore the dignity of circumcision

strict enforcement of and monitoring of circumcision laws and regulation of initiation schools

restorative actions for victims

children to be respected participants in decisions such as these, that affect their lives

strong civil society voice and actions at all levels.

Background and Situational Analysis

Deaths of boys in initiation schools have regularly made headlines but with less than adequate and necessary follow up actions from authorities. Recent deaths (June 2013) have shown that community members in affected communities and those with a strong circumcision culture called the deaths unfortunate but unavoidable. Women whose children had died in the carnage refused to talk calling it taboo. Traditional leaders equally took up the taboo position. The silence is deafening. The general population called for arrests and convictions but it didn’t happen. While boys lose their lives needlessly, traditional surgeons and allied criminal elements still walk the communities free and continue to intimidate the community populations. Boys are dying needlessly in the name of tradition. In the words of the Times Newspaper of July 8, 2013- ‘Culture is being used to cloak the murder of boy children’. In the past two months, more than 300 boys have been badly injured from botched circumcisions, resulting in 30 deaths in the Eastern Cape and more than 30 deaths in Mpumalanga. Scores more are in critical condition in hospitals with hundreds mutilated, scarred and maimed for life. Children are subjected to torturous conditions in the initiation camps, leading to loss of life. According to Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, the main medical issues that can cause death in initiates are massive bleeding leading to hypovolemic shock, infection, dehydration from being denied safe drinking water, septicaemia shock, hypothermia from exposure to extreme cold weather, low blood sugar from extreme food restriction, and genital amputation due to poor circumcision techniques. In some cases, the cause of death is assault. There had been earlier reports of children being routinely beaten and assaulted, some to the extent that they died. Some reported being denied food and water. These claims have been corroborated by the statement from the Minister of Health.

As far back as 2007 in the Eastern Cape, reported deaths of a group of 12 initiates with more than 20 illegal traditional surgeons arrested in the preceding month. The Eastern Cape Provincial Department of Health, reported nearly 100 youths being hospitalised, while 350 were rescued from "fly-by-night [initiation] schools".  Health department officials later spent two months, driving through the rough, hilly terrain of the province, swooping down on dodgy initiation schools to rescue young boys from the risk of infections, penile amputations, and death. Although health authorities report and treat serious complications from botched circumcisions by traditional surgeons there is a disconnection within government operations vis-a-vis initiation school fatalities and operations. While much effort is put into rescuing boys from "fly-by-night [initiation] schools" and treating them, law enforcement and regulation seems to be non-existent. To date there have been limited convictions of traditional surgeons. While the nation drags its feet on the way forward, victims of botched circumcisions continue to experience the following ongoing effects:

Chronic physical pain and other medical complications on account of disfigurement and amputations:  The Mail and Guardian reports that in the Eastern Cape where they were able to get statistics the death toll for the five years from 2008 to 2012 were 323. During that time, a further 126 boys suffered genital amputations.

Psychological trauma - Night mares from their terrifying ordeals not to mention the life-long psychological and emotional trauma that these children will likely endure.

Poor school attendance - Some  former initiates  will not go back to school on account  of  fear of  ridicule  from friends  because  of  disfigurements and dismemberment.One boy for example, lost his penis in the winter circumcision season of 2006. Since then, the 23-year-old victim of a botched circumcision has managed to hide this from neighbours, friends and teammates. He is one of 154 young men who have lost their penises to botched circumcisions in the Eastern Cape in the five years up to July last year. His father says his son has led a life of seclusion for the past five years. “I pleaded with him to return to school after the amputation,” said his father at the family’s ­modest homestead at a village outside Mthatha, Eastern Cape. He could not respond to his father’s pleas due to anxiety and dropped out of Grade 8 at the local school.  The young man, an ace striker in the local soccer team, said he had stopped going to school for fear of being taunted by his peers.

The Yezingane Network is encouraged by the position taken by the Presidency and parliamentarians who have called for arrests and prosecution of the operators of illegal initiation schools including legal schools operating outside guidelines. President Jacob Zuma  echoed the national outrage at the unnecessary loss of lives, saying: "It cannot be acceptable that every time young men reach this crucial time in their development, their lives are culled in the most painful of ways in the care of circumcision schools. “The ruling party African National Congress called the deaths and injuries "tragic" and said the government must act immediately. “Authorities can no longer pay lip service to dealing with this disaster that afflicts our nation during the traditional initiation season," it said in a statement


According to the Bill of Rights, the right to enjoy a cultural practice may "not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights". Dr Ria Nonyana-Mokabane, a legal scholar explains: “Thus, cultural practice may not infringe on the boys' right to equality, life, human dignity, mental health and their spiritual, moral and social development, among other things. They are entitled to healthcare, education, protection from maltreatment, abuse or degradation, as well as an environment that is not ­harmful to their health and wellbeing”. It could be argued, therefore, that the interest in protecting other fundamental rights outweighs the right to culture. Throughout, the right to culture has to give way to other rights – rights with no countervailing rights over them. In this, the Constitution created no space to manoeuvre for cultural circumcision to compete with, or trump, other rights”.

The Children’s Act (2005)

The Children’s Act (2005) also calls for the need to protect the child from any physical or psychological harm that may be caused by (i) subjecting the child to maltreatment, abuse, neglect, exploitation or degradation or exposing the child to violence or exploitation or other harmful behaviour. With regard to circumcisions the act states that:

Every child has the right not to be subjected to social, cultural and religious practices which are detrimental to his or her well-being. And that circumcision of male children under the age of 16 is prohibited, except when-

(a) Circumcision is performed for religious purposes in accordance with the  practices of the religion concerned  and in the manner prescribed,  circumcision of male children older than  16 years may be performed if taking into consideration the child’s age, maturity and stage of development,

Child has given consent to the circumcision in the prescribed manner, after proper counselling of the child and in the manner prescribed.

(b) Circumcision is performed for medical reasons on the recommendation of a medical practitioner.

Every male child has the right to refuse circumcision.

The Children’s Act of 2005 upholds the standard from the Convention on the Rights of the Child that in all matters concerning the care, protection and well-being of a child the child’s best interest is of paramount importance, must be applied.

We acknowledge efforts at enactment of provincial circumcision laws by the Free State, Eastern Cape and Limpopo; laws that seek to prevent injury or death during such ceremonies. Notwithstanding these efforts there remains a gap in this intervention: there has been no progress yet on finalising the national policy framework on cultural circumcision. Some of the provincial laws need urgent review and reform.  These provincial laws do not require the child's consent to participate in cultural circumcision for instance and do not specify a minimum age at which a child may participate in ­cultural circumcision and thus do not comply with the national legislation.


3. Yezingane Network’s concerns

Poor  law enforcements

Traditional surgeons who cause child deaths and mutilations are routinely arrested after they are identified, but over the years there has been neither prosecution nor conviction.

 The lack of accountability

With the absence of any action taken by authority at any level, provincial, traditional or national, there appears to be no responsible authority that is looking into bringing these deaths to an end in any manner that would inspire confidence in the general public and more importantly fear amongst unscrupulous operators. It would appear that these unscrupulous operators continue with impunity year after year whilst we struggle as a country to find leadership over such an important issue as the needless deaths of our fellow citizens.

Lack of reliable national statistics

There is no reliable data on the number of boys who undergo initiation each year, nor is there any aggregated data on the numbers of young men who die or are mutilated as a result of traditional circumcision. The available statistics on boys that die at initiations are for those whose bodies are taken to mortuaries and those rescued and taken to hospitals.Democratic Alliance spokesperson on traditional affairs George Boinamo pointed out that not all boys who are injured report to hospitals for treatment and that not all boys who die following traditional circumcision find their way to mortuaries. “If an initiate dies at initiation schools, the culture is you don't bring the body home. The body is buried at the initiation school, in the bush wherever they are in the mountain. The death is not reported before the burial," he said. The same reports indicated that although Initiation is most commonly practiced in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. The Limpopo and Mpumalanga health departments could not provide numbers and referred further questions to traditional leaders and the department of traditional affairs.

 Lack of awareness of  rights and responsibilities of families of initiates

Families of victims indicate that they are not aware of any laws compelling them to report initiation deaths to the state.

 4. Recommendations

Initiation may be a highly valued cultural practice but in the wake of abuse and the deaths of initiates during cultural circumcision this has become a concern for many, including those who support the practice in general. We therefore call upon the government to take immediate decisive action to end the carnage of boy children in the initiation schools.

The Yezingane Network urgently:

Call upon President Jacob Zuma to establish a commission of inquiry into the tragic mutilations and deaths of children in initiation schools on a similar scale of importance as that of the Marikana enquiry.

Call for the review of the Children’s Act to addresses inconsistencies in legislation in respect of male circumcision.

Call appropriate government departments to demonstrate leadership and accountability in dealing with the issue of deaths in traditional circumcisions and to initiate immediate response for the short-term as well as develop a long term plan involving both medical and psychosocial prevention, promotion, and mitigation strategies.

5. Interim measures

We further recommend:

Registration of all boys that will go through circumcision in provinces and registration of all initiation schools that comply with regulations for a safe, secure and protected circumcision.

Government engagement with Traditional Leaders, through existing structures, regarding the manner in which initiation schools are being run, and the development of guidelines and regulations for this practice.

Perpetrators who run illegal and unregistered initiation schools must  be held accountable  through the criminal-justice system

The rights of the child are ensured through child participation in all national and provincial advocacy initiatives, with appropriate selection of boys for these participation processes including those who opt out of traditional circumcision, botched circumcisions, and boys yet to be circumcised.

A communication strategy is developed, targeting the public in creating awareness among parents and children aimed at ensuring informed decision making for families and boys.

A comprehensive package of services and intervention strategies is developed within a multi-disciplinary team, for boys and families negatively affected by traditional circumcisions including:

Access to specialised counselling services for boys and families who have traumatic experiences from initiation schools, focussing on issues of masculinity, belonging and re-integration (DOH & DSD).

Access to specialised treatments and reconstructive surgery for those that were mutilated and dismembered, including sensitivity training for clinic staff, and community-based palliative care (DOH).

To consider adding ‘circumcision complications’ as a Notifiable Condition to allow for reporting and monitoring of cases and deaths in the health system (DOH).

Intervention in schools to assist the reintegration of boys into schools (DOH, DSD, DBE).

Fast-tracking of prosecutions in an informed and sensitive manner to ensure complaints at police stations are taken seriously (DOJ & CD).

In view of the commitment of Yezingane Network to issues of Child Protection, Yezingane Networks calls for strong partnership within civil society organisations to move the agenda to end child deaths in initiation schools.

About Yezingane Network: Yezingane Network has represented children and children’s voices on the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) since 2003 and continues to be one of the most organized and influential civil society movements in South Africa. There are currently a total of 194 members of Yezingane Network with an overall reach of thousands of organizations in South Africa due to many of those members being networks themselves. The network consists of members from a wide variety of expertise and includes NGO’s, CBO’s, FBO’s, and Networks. The Yezingane Network has, over the past years, developed a successful and cohesive model of networking and collaboration. Genuine representation of children’s issues at the necessary policy and practice decision making spaces for HIV, TB and STI’s is ensured through child participation techniques, as well as being an inclusive advocacy platform to all child stakeholders. Yezingane Network engages in policy and program formulation, as well as coordinating and monitoring children’s sector programs. As a result there have been numerous successes leading to changes in policy and practice in relation to HIV prevention, treatment, and care and support for children

Unchecked deaths of boys in the initiation schools through extreme physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect is a situation that the Yezingane Network find totally unacceptable and unfortunate and goes against all the tenets of the network’s child focused outcomes through which the network partners work to see: Children, especially the most vulnerable, living in good health, receiving lifelong education and cared for, protected and participating in decision making processes in the country. Child protection is a top priority in the work of the Yezingane Network (YN) members. Building on that foundation, YN seeks to empower children, families, communities and partners to prevent and respond to exploitation, neglect, abuse and other forms of violence affecting children, especially the most vulnerable.  Endorsed and fully supported by all member organisations, YN supports:

Preventing exploitation, harmful traditional practices and violence against children in their families and communities.

Treating and caring for children who have been abused, neglected or exploited

Protecting children living in vulnerable situations in communities

YN affirms the role of parents and care givers as first line of support, responsible for care and protection of children, while also affirming the responsibility of states to guarantee the care and support of children.

The focus is on strengthening one or more elements of a child protection system which includes:

 Laws, policies and regulations

 Services and service delivery mechanisms

 Building community capacities

 Cooperation, coordination and collaboration

 Accountability mechanisms

 Circles of care

Children’s resilience, life skills and participation.

Given the above stated commitments to the well-being of children, the Yezingane Network commits to working with government through SANAC and directly with individual departments (health, education, and social development) on creating and sustaining health care services that are child and adolescent friendly, that respect children’s rights including Deadly initiation: Govt lacks numbers on circumcision deaths without a penis-2012-11-4 initiation: Govt-lacks-numbers-on-circumcision-deaths

For more information please contact the Yezingane Network Secretariat:

Children’s Rights Centre

Address: 36 Essex Terrace, Westville, Durban, South Africa.

Tel: (031) 2662384

Fax: (031) 2662804










Today: Yezingane Network is counting on you

Yezingane Network needs your help with “Civil Society Organisations: A call for government action on deaths of boys in traditional circumcisions”. Join Yezingane Network and 152 supporters today.